I was a paediatric registrar when I got sick: burnout and mental illness. Exhausted. Apathetic. Hopeless. There were times where suicide seemed like the only way out. But here I am, every day, completing my 5k, appreciating the beauty of the rural surroundings in which I live and feeling incredibly grateful to still be here.
It was recently Mental Health Awareness Week, the theme of which was loneliness. As health professionals, we often work in a team. Surrounded by like-minded people, we belong. So how is it that healthcare workers can at times feel so unbelievably lonely?
During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many health professionals made the selfless decision to stay away from their families in a bid to protect the people they loved. Hospital accommodation for anyone who hasn’t experienced it is often bleak. No home comforts. The bare minimum. A small bedroom. A grimey communal shower. A sparsely equipped kitchen- in fact I remember once sitting in a dimly lit room, eating cereal out of a saucepan for lack of anything more adequate. And then there were those who lived by themselves, whose contact with friends and relatives had ceased completely, relationships reduced to a video call. Isolated. Alone.
Friends have told me that, during that time, they didn’t feel able to share the level of horror that they were witnessing on a daily basis with their loved ones for fear of worrying them. Carrying this heavy burden, they struggled on, returning to work to care for their patients. And how do you even begin to portray the everyday trauma you are experiencing without the face to face contact that we rely on for these difficult conversations? Even relationships with colleagues who knew what it was like were different: humanity, empathy and compassion, hidden behind masks and gowns. Physical contact replaced with a smile visible only in someone’s eyes. Days passed and, surrounded by people, healthcare professionals felt more and more lonely.
This unprecedented situation came on the back of doctors already being overwhelmed and exhausted by the relentless pressures. Since the pandemic started, rates of burnout and mental illness have been at an all time high. A few years ago, as I was sinking deeper into burnout, anxiety and depression, everywhere I looked I saw people coping; colleagues going about their daily lives seemingly spinning plates in all directions. Yet there I was, full of dread at the idea of entering the ward. Exhausted. Cynical. Bitter. A shell of the doctor I had once been. Isolated and abnormal. In my mind, I was the only one struggling. Loneliness in a sea of people.
As we emerge from what is hopefully the worst of the pandemic, we need to make sure we discuss these emotions that are familiar to so many. We must empower healthcare workers to have these conversations, to voice the loneliness and isolation that they’ve experienced. By role modelling and talking about our vulnerabilities, we set an example for others, giving them permission to share their own experiences. It’s by valuing one another that we create a culture where asking for help is no longer shameful and where no healthcare worker has to feel alone.
Knowing how to begin these conversations can be hard and often depends on preexisting team dynamics. Sometimes, a good place to start is with a cuppa and a simple statement that acknowledges how tough things have been recently. Perhaps you could share what you’ve found particularly tricky and why and maybe, just maybe, that person will feel able to speak out too.
Be the change.